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AUSTIN (Nexstar) – Wednesday marks one year since the deadly mass shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde. The anniversary is bringing attention to efforts to respond to the tragedy and the work to move forward.

In Austin, lawmakers have taken up measures aimed to improve school safety and address mental health care. But legislation aiming to tighten restrictions on guns has failed to advance, despite pleas and protests from families of children killed in Uvalde.

Many of those concerns have been carried at the State Capitol by State Sen. Roland Gutierrez (D – San Antonio), whose district includes Uvalde. He has been the loudest voice in the legislature for gun safety reform legislation, including a measure to raise the age to buy AR-15-style semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21.

Families of Uvalde shooting victims have advocated for the legislation. The gunman in the shooting at Robb Elementary School bought two AR-15-style rifles just days after his 18th birthday.

On Thursday, Gutierrez made one more effort to move the stalled legislation forward, attempting to amend the raise-the-age bill on to another firearm-related bill in the Senate. Republicans blocked the amendment with a procedural move.

Afterward, Gutierrez made an impassioned speech about what he has been through advocating for the Uvalde families and about the efforts that those grieving parents have made to try to advocate for that legislation as well.

“Next week, we will memorialize these children that have passed on. But I think that we’re missing a real opportunity to be more expansive here, without infringing on anybody’s rights,” Gutierrez said of the failed amendment.

“It’s probably the last opportunity that we’re going to have to be able to do anything in this building that would make it a little harder for people to access militarized weapons,” Gutierrez added.

He described the graphic images he’s seen, showing scenes inside Robb Elementary after the shooting, tearing up as he spoke. “You’ve never seen so much blood in your life,” he told his fellow Senators.

Gutierrez spoke about the families, who regularly made the 3-hour drive from Uvalde to push for change at the Capitol.

“It’s all they had left, to be able to come to you and advocate that this wouldn’t happen again. Anybody else’s kids. Of course, we know it has. Happened two weeks ago,” Gutierrez said, referencing the mass shooting at a mall in Allen. Three children were among those killed there, including a 3-year-old boy.

“I get what you guys have to deal with back home when I get that you have to go and run for office.  Sometimes you just got to tell those people go to hell. We’re here to protect kids. That’s all that matters,” Gutierrez said.

Parents of the Uvalde victims have called for accountability and action after the mass shooting.

“I don’t want her to be remembered just for this tragedy, just for May 24,” Kimberly Mata-Rubio said of her daughter, Lexi. She was one of the 19 children who died that day in Robb Elementary. She was 10 years old.

Mata-Rubio has been one of the most visible family members in the year since the mass shooting. She has shared raw emotion and grief in posts on social media, giving powerful details of the pain and sense of loss she continues to feel.

“People don’t understand what it’s like to live when you don’t want to, just how long our journey with this pain will be because it is every day and we never get any relief,” she explained. She wore a shirt showing an image of her daughter’s face.

“I miss our conversations,” she said.

Mata-Rubio has reached out to lawmakers in Austin, and in Washington, advocating for change. She says she aims to honor her daughter with her work.

“It’s my greatest responsibility. I want to save other children. I want to honor her life, her legacy with action,” she said. “I want to reach moms and dads everywhere. I want them to know our reality. And to choose to fight with us alongside with us.”

Mata-Rubio was among the Uvalde parents who helped encourage lawmakers in Washington to pass gun control measures in the weeks after the mass shooting. Texas Senator John Cornyn was one of the leaders of the bipartisan Safer Communities Act.

Cornyn said the act has yielded results. He pointed to statistics that show a 52% increase in federal prosecutions of unlicensed firearm dealers. He also said that there have been 160 instances in which the FBI has identified people with juvenile records that prohibited them and disqualified them from being able to purchase a firearm.

Texas Democrat faces primary challenge after vote on health care ban for transgender minors

A Texas state representative already drew a primary challenger and faced a formal censure from a Democratic group in her district one day after joining Republicans in supporting legislation to ban health care options for transgender minors, such as puberty-blocking medication and hormone treatments.

Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, crossed party lines Monday afternoon along with three other Democrats — Reps. Harold Dutton of Houston, Abel Herrero of Robstown and Tracy King of Batesville — to vote in favor of Senate Bill 14, one of the main priorities for Texas Republican leaders this session. The legislation, which many LGBTQ+ advocates adamantly opposed, cleared a final vote in the House by a margin of 87-56.

The amended bill now heads back to the Texas Senate, where it originated, so that lawmakers there can weigh some changes, such as the addition of language specifying children already receiving these treatments would have to be “weaned off” in a “medically appropriate” way. The options facing the senators now are to either request a conference committee to iron out differences or accept the House’s changes and forward the bill to the governor’s desk.

Thierry released a lengthy statement Friday explaining why she initially voted for SB 14, saying she did so to protect Texas children. The wording mirrored what she shared during an emotional, nearly 10-minute speech on the House floor, where she was the only Democrat to speak in favor of the legislation during the hours-long debate. In her remarks, she expressed reservations about the effects of medicine and addressed how her stance on the legislation might fall out of step with others in her party.

“Certainly, the topic of gender and body dysphoria in children is a complex issue that requires careful consideration, caution and compassion. Sadly, the discussion has become polarized and politicized,” Thierry said. “In fact, while many of my constituents encouraged me to vote in favor of this legislation, hostile activists on social media platforms have made nasty political threats to influence my vote against the bill. These personal, and even racist, attacks on me as an African American woman are neither productive or persuasive. It remains my legislative duty and moral obligation to vote the conscience and core values of my constituency. I have done this today with an open heart and a clear mind.”

Brad Pritchett, the field director for the LGBTQ+ advocacy organization Equality Texas, said he lives in Houston and has known Thierry since 2010. He is among those “disappointed” by the lawmaker’s vote on SB 14. He said she may be facing additional scrutiny, though, because of her House floor speech, whereas the handful of other Democrats who ended up supporting the bill remained silent during debate. He accused her of citing research and information “that is just parroted directly out of anti-LGBTQ+ propaganda on this issue.”

During an interview with KXAN Thursday, Thierry stood by her vote and pushed back against claims that she does not support LGBTQ+ Texans.

“Everything I did, I did for children, for trans children and for all children,” Thierry said. “I can’t take a vote that I know could potentially compromise the health and well-being of a child, simply because I am worried about my political future.”

Ultimately, the legislation is expected to become state law, and many conservative groups are championing Thierry for breaking with her party to support it. On her personal Twitter account Tuesday, she shared a clip from an interview she did on Fox News discussing her vote along with this quote: “What is right is not always popular, and what is popular is not always right.”

However, that same vote is leading to some fallout among her fellow Democrats. Following the House vote Monday, the Meyerland Area Democrats Club met and agreed by a 13-7 vote to officially censure Thierry for supporting SB 14 and House Bill 900, which aims to ban sexually explicit materials from school libraries. Critics have equated the latter legislation to a “book ban” and worried it would lead to the removal of books with LGBTQ+ content and themes.

The Meyerland club, which represents Democratic voters in southwest Houston, released a statement on social media Monday evening explaining why its members officially condemned the Democratic lawmaker, who first won her seat representing District 146 in 2017.

“Rep. Thierry campaigned on being an ally to the LGBTQ+ community,” the club’s resolution read, “yet she has supported legislation which will harm this community and doesn’t align with democratic principles.”

The censure continued, “We call upon Representative Thierry to reconsider her stance on these issues and work towards policies that truly reflect the best interests and democratic aspirations of the people she represents. It is our hope that this resolution serves as a reminder that we expect our elected officials to act in accordance with the values and needs of their constituents.”

During a phone conversation Wednesday, Thierry criticized how the censure vote happened, saying it was “done in the cover of night.” She said she never got a chance to defend herself to the club members, but appreciated the seven people who opposed the resolution. She said some of her constituents contacted her after hearing of the club’s censure to reiterate their support for her.

“I represent House District 146, and I did this based on the will of my constituents,” Thierry said. “I believe that the majority of people that live, work and play in my district agree with me, and I heard from them.”

Thierry’s seat is up for election in November next year, and she already has one Democratic challenger for the primary election in March 2024. Ashton Woods, an activist who founded the Black Lives Matter chapter in Houston, announced Tuesday he’ll challenge Thierry — again. He sought to unseat her for the Democratic nomination in 2020 but lost the primary by nearly 35 percentage points.

In his recent social media posts, he called out her vote on SB 14 as part of the reason he’s entering the race now.

The District 146 seat that Thierry represents in southwest Houston is in solidly Democratic territory. During her first and most recent elections, Thierry ran unopposed. In 2018, though, she had a Libertarian challenger in the general election but bested that candidate by 85 percentage points. During their rematch in 2020, she won by 74 percentage points.

Equality Texas put out a warning after SB 14 passed with the help of the four Democratic lawmakers in the House. On social media, the group wrote, “Health care for trans kids saves lives, and we stand with every trans life. These votes were unconscionable, and we will remember the lawmakers who betrayed our community.”

Pritchett said he considered Thierry to be a friend after meeting her more than a decade ago and felt she stood with the LGBTQ+ community.

“I don’t anticipate that she’ll be reaching out to me anytime soon, which is disappointing,” Pritchett said Tuesday, “but I would say [it’s] not surprising given that she has painted herself as an ally to the community and a friend to me for years. On this issue, she never touched base, never reached out, never used the resources that she had at her disposal and instead has just continued to parrot easily disproven information and talking points that are rooted in the erasure of trans people in Texas.”

Pritchett said voters should now scrutinize her record much more closely during the next election.

“I think that the representative has painted herself as a voice for the voiceless over and over again,” he said. “What she did when she cast her vote was she believed a small minority of people who have been on a crusade to harm trans and nonbinary people in Texas, and she ignored a chorus of people who’ve continued to show up that Capitol to make their voices heard as to why essential, life-saving health care should be accessible to everyone, whether they’re transgender or cisgender, and that’s really disappointing. I think it cements in her legacy something that will not be viewed pleasantly by people in the future.”

Investigators said video of student thrown into wall wasn’t abuse, then changed their minds

Inside the GOALS Learning Center, surveillance cameras recorded as two teachers walked a 14-year-old boy down the hallway. 

The Round Rock school is designed for special education students with a primary disability of Emotional Disturbance, according to the district’s website.

The employees were on either side of the student. They each had a hand threaded through his arm, pushing him forward while he planted his feet to resist their momentum. 

They were going to the school’s cool-down room: a doorless room on the Round Rock campus. State records showed the teachers said they were taking him there because he was arguing and refusing to take a break in class.

			Video showing Round Rock ISD employee throw a student into a cool-down room in April 2022. (Round Rock ISD Photo)

Video showing Round Rock ISD employee throw a student into a cool-down room in April 2022. (Round Rock ISD Photo)

Once in the room, the video showed the boy leaning against the wall with his arms crossed for several minutes. The educators who brought him there stood just outside the doorway. 

But things shifted quickly.  

When the two teachers walked away, the student followed — and a school administrator, who came moments earlier to relieve the teachers, grabbed him around the neck, according to state records, and threw him back into the room where he fell to the floor. 

In the video, the student stood up with fists raised, yelling “You threw me into the wall.”

Two employees, including the administrator who just threw him, are seen grabbing the student by the arms and holding him on the ground for nearly 5 minutes. It’s unclear if the student was lying face up or face down because part of the hold happens off-screen.

At one point, the boy can be heard screaming “I hate it here.”

Later reports from the Texas Education Agency said the video shows the student was subjected to a technique against state law when he was thrown into a room and held on the ground. 

Surveillance video from inside GOALS Learning Center shows the student leaning against the wall with his arms crossed for more than a minute before walking out and being thrown back into the cool-down room. (Round Rock ISD Video)

But, even with the video, nearly two months later in June, investigators with the Child Protective Investigations Division, or CPI, sent a letter to the boy’s mother saying it was not abuse.

“I called the investigator. The investigator told me to take it up with a supervisor,” the boy’s mother, Tatiana Alfano, said. “I pleaded like I would — like an appeal. This isn’t right.”

In October 2022, KXAN obtained the video through the student’s family attorneys and published it in a report. The video garnered thousands of views and months later in November, Alfano got a letter in the mail from the Department of Family and Protective Services — which oversees CPI. 

“I got a whole new letter. Same case number. Same incident date. This time instead of ‘ruled out’ it says ‘reason to believe,’” Alfano said.

			Tatiana Alfano sits in her living room. (KXAN Photo/Richie Bowes)

Tatiana Alfano sits in her living room. (KXAN Photo/Richie Bowes)

“I don’t think anything changed. I think they got a lot of pressure from the media. A lot of people questioning ‘Hey this isn’t right,” she continued.

DFPS’ new ruling indicated investigators now believed, based on evidence, that abuse occurred. Investigators did not disclose to Alfano or KXAN why the ruling changed. 

The employee, who was seen on video throwing the student and investigated for allegations of physical abuse, did not return our emails and messages asking for comment. He remains under investigation by the TEA’s Education Investigations Division.

KXAN is not naming the employee because he is not charged with a crime.

The other two employees seen in the video are not under investigation by the State Board of Education Certification, according to TEA records.

Round Rock Independent School District told KXAN in October the educator was still employed and working on administrative projects, but not assigned to the GOALS Learning Center. District officials told us in April it would not disclose whether the employee still worked for the district because it was a confidential personnel matter.

After hearing from frustrated parents of students with disabilities, Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, filed a bill this session that would expand the definition of abuse to include restraints in schools that do not comply with state and federal laws.

His concern was for students who are not able to talk and describe abuse to adults.

We showed Dutton the video of Alfano’s son and told him about CPI changing the ruling.

			Texas State Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) watches the video of the incident involving Tatiana Alfano's son (KXAN Photo/Kelly Wiley)

Texas State Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, watches the video of the incident involving Tatiana Alfano’s son (KXAN Photo/Kelly Wiley)

“I mean, if you throw any child down like that, that’s abuse,” Dutton said. “I don’t know how anyone could conclude that wasn’t abuse.”

“I am not so sure about this changing conclusion using the same set of facts and video to come up with a different conclusion,” Dutton continued. “Come on — that creates a lack of confidence in CPS for doing anything.”

Up until 2017, Child Protective Services, or CPS, handled both family and school investigations into alleged abuse and neglect. DFPS now has two separate divisions: CPS for family investigations and CPI for special investigations, including cases of alleged abuse in schools.

In 2021 in San Augustine, a small city in East Texas, records show the local school district was notified by a parent about an allegation an aide physically mistreated an elementary school student with special needs.

The district said in a statement it terminated the aide the morning after reviewing the footage. The superintendent said it confirmed the misconduct.

According to the district, during the termination meeting, the aide alleged misconduct by another employee. The district fired the second employee the next day.

The first aide to be terminated did not respond to our requests for comment. The second aide told KXAN she did not hit the child.

TEA records show both aides voluntarily surrendered their educator certificates following a state investigation into the video.

But records show, for both employees accused, CPI investigators again ruled out abuse.

“How are they going to rule it out and he had bruises on him?” the boy’s mother, Arizona Price, said. “They even [saw] the video.”

			Arizona Price stands outside her home in East Texas. (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)

Arizona Price stands outside her home in East Texas. (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)

Price has been allowed by the school district to view the video but so far, the district has asked the attorney general’s office if it can decline her request to have a copy of the footage.

In the letter to the attorney general, the district said it is requesting to withhold the footage from Price because it anticipates litigation over the matter.

KXAN has not viewed the video showing this incident.

No criminal charges have been filed in the case and the TEA closed the investigation when the aides surrendered their certificates.

“The system is bad. It’s just … I’ve never been through that before. So, I am just lost for words,” Price said.

Between 2021 and 2022, the Child Protective Investigations division investigated more than 1,500 allegations employees physically abused students in Texas schools.

Records show CPI did not confirm physical abuse occurred in 92% of those cases.

According to the department’s data, in a portion of the cases, CPI investigators said they did not confirm abuse because they weren’t able to collect enough evidence to decide one way or the other. In those cases, the disposition letter to the parents says “unable to determine.”

But in most cases where DFPS did not confirm physical abuse, CPI investigators indicated they collected enough evidence to determine abuse did not occur. In those cases, they told parents in a letter similar to the one Price and Alfano received, physical abuse was “ruled out.”

Overwhelmingly, CPI Investigators rule out physical abuse in school investigations. Unconfirmed cases include those in which investigators administravely closed a case, did not have enough evidence to make a determination and cases in which they said they had enough evidence to rule out abuse completely. Confirmed means investigators determined there was reason to believe abuse occurred.

Investigations into alleged physical abuse against a child by school employees are handled by the special investigation unit within DPFS. All school employees are mandated to report suspected abuse to DFPS or law enforcement. DFPS is required to respond within 24 to 72 hours to reports of abuse.

At the same time, TEA can conduct its own investigation into educator misconduct or non-compliance on the part of a particular school district. TEA will consider the determinations of DFPS school investigations, but the agency can also investigate and consider the underlying facts as it pertains to violations of the Texas Administrative Code.

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Standard of Proof for DFPS

Physical abuse occurs when one or more of the following is true:

  • A child suffers a physical injury that results in substantial harm to the child, or there is a genuine threat of substantial harm from physical injury to the child. Both include an injury that does not logically match the history or explanation given. Both exclude an accident or reasonable discipline by a parent, guardian or managing or possessory conservator that does not expose the child to a substantial risk of harm.
  • A person or persons fail to make a reasonable effort to prevent an action by another person that results in physical injury causing substantial harm to a child.
  • A person or persons currently use a controlled substance, as defined by Chapter 481, Health and Safety, in a manner or to the extent that the use results in physical injury to a child.
  • A person or persons cause, expressly permit, or encourage a child to use a controlled substance, as defined by Chapter 481, Health and Safety,

DFPS Commissioner Stephanie Muth and the acting Special Investigations Regional Director Greg Eakens declined KXAN’s requests for an interview. The agency said it can’t comment on specific cases due to confidentiality laws.

But, in a statement, DFPS officials said “Investigations are difficult and complex work in any setting. School investigations [are] equally as challenging than any other probe into abuse or neglect of a child.”

The standard of proof for reaching a disposition, according to DFPS, is the same for school settings as it is for an investigation of a family.

The results of investigations into alleged abuse at schools can have an impact on whether an educator keeps their license — and on potential criminal cases. The special investigation program director — and in extenuating circumstances, the special investigations regional director — approves the results.

Parents are not allowed to appeal the decision. They can only file a complaint with the Office of Consumer Affairs.

DFPS officials pointed to a component of the definition of physical abuse in Texas law requiring “genuine threat of substantial harm” — which is defined as “declaring or exhibiting the intent or determination to inflict real and significant physical injury or damage to a child.”

DFPS officials said restraints, even when they don’t comply with state and federal law, are only considered abuse when they otherwise meet the statutory definition of child abuse.

This would change if Rep. Dutton’s bill passed.

“The problem is on the legislative side — no matter what we call it, no matter how we define it, [CPI] has still got to be the ones to make it happen,” Dutton said.

“What is going to happen [is] the parents, you know, are going to take matters into their own hands or their children will,” Dutton continued. “That’s just the sort of chaos we hope to prevent.”

In the case of Tatiana Alfano’s son, a separate TEA investigation by the Division of Special Education Dispute Resolution, Complaints and Intensive Monitoring, completed in March, concluded her son was “inappropriately restrained,” that aversive techniques were used, and that some of the restraint was not properly reported.

According to DFPS policy, the latest ruling by CPI would also have to be sent to the TEA along with a redacted version of the case file.

But Alfano said she is concerned about other cases like hers.

“It makes me feel better in this one case, but it makes me question the system a whole lot more,” Alfano said. “I know that I can’t be the only one.”

Medical billing transparency legislation passed, heads to governor

Legislation that will increase medical billing transparency – by requiring hospitals to provide an itemized receipt to patients before sending their bill to collections – achieved final passage by the Senate on Tuesday.

		Rep. Caroline Harris, R-Round Rock, and Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, worked together to pass medical billing transparency legislation requiring hospitals and other health care facilities to provide patients with an itemized bill before sending the bill to collections. (Courtesy: Melva Gomez, chief of staff for Harris)

Rep. Caroline Harris, R-Round Rock, and Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, worked together to pass medical billing transparency legislation requiring hospitals and other health care facilities to provide patients with an itemized bill before sending the bill to collections. (Courtesy: Melva Gomez, chief of staff for Harris)

The Senate’s approval of SB 490 by Sen. Bryan Hughes, (R-Mineola), caps the measure’s passage through both chambers. The bill was sent to Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday.

Hughes’ legislation was amended to trim the types of health care providers that would have to send an itemized invoice. In its final form, the bill applies to health care facilities and hospitals but does not apply to doctors or federally qualified health centers.

Hughes said federally qualified health centers already have regulations that make billing information more readily accessible. He described the legislation as a “great bill that is going to help every Texan know what they’re being charged for.”

State Rep. Caroline Harris, R-Round Rock, authored a companion bill in the House.

“Going door to door visiting with voters I’d hear stories about medical bills and debt, often unexplained and over billed charges, that burdened families. From there, I verified gaps in our law that needed to be fixed so patients knew what they were being charged for and the exact accurate cost,” Harris said Tuesday night to KXAN investigators. 

		State Rep. Caroline Harris, R-Round Rock, explaining the itemized medical bill legislation on Wednesday, May 10, 2023. (Courtesy: Melva Gomez, Rep. Harris' Chief of Staff)

State Rep. Caroline Harris, R-Round Rock, explaining the itemized medical bill legislation on Wednesday, May 10, 2023. (Courtesy: Melva Gomez, Rep. Harris’ Chief of Staff)

Earlier she tweeted that she was honored to lead on the bill and thanked Hughes for accepting the changes. 

On May 10, she explained to lawmakers on the House floor that doctors were excluded from the requirement because patients typically have a much closer relationship with their physician than a hospital, which makes it easier to get questions answered and errors fixed. She said federally qualified health centers are excluded because “most of the time the federal government is covering those costs.”

“I’ve got my doctor on speed dial, so if I have concerns about any of the medical billing with him, I know I can contact him directly,” Harris said. “It’s a different story when it comes to hospitals and facilities.”

Hughes’ bill had four coauthors, five sponsors and a bipartisan list of more than 100 co-sponsors.

The legislation received pushback initially from the Texas Hospital Association over the potential cost of providing an itemized bill for every patient.

		Michelle Ledesma sorting through documents she's collected after being sued for medical debt. (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)

Michelle Ledesma sorting through documents she’s collected after being sued for medical debt. (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)

“It’s remarkable how much opposition there was to bill like this,” Hughes said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “The second session for this bill to go through.”

The bill follows a KXAN investigation into a Central Texas hospital that sued hundreds of patients over unpaid medical bills. Several of those patients told KXAN they received vague bills and were unable to get itemized receipts before being served with a lawsuit.

“That is AWESOME news,” Michelle Ledesma said after learning that the bill is one step closer to becoming law. “I just didn’t tell my story for myself. It was for all of those people like me who were struggling to get the itemized statement but then were sued. It was for those who didn’t know they could fight this. It was for those who were taken advantage of during this process.”